Truths to Be Told

Terri E. Givens, now a provost, considers the twists and turns of her career, wondering how much her outward success reflects her unseen struggles as a black woman in academe.

April 27, 2017

Preface: I have been writing a column for Inside Higher Ed off and on for many years. In 2011, I wrote a column titled “Mental Health: Let’s Talk” that still has relevance today, particularly in light of the recent passing of colleagues in political science. I decided to write a series of blog posts in response to the many discussions I have had with colleagues in the last few weeks. A version of this essay was originally posted on my personal blog, and given the response I have received, I felt it was important to give it a broader audience.

The news that my friend and colleague Mark Sawyer, a professor of comparative and American politics, was gone pulled me back into memories from more than 20 years ago when we were grad students attending conferences, competing to see who would land the top jobs and supporting each other in our choice to study comparative -- rather than “just” American -- politics.

As fate would have it, Mark would start his job at the University of California, Los Angeles, as I was leaving there to start my first job at University of Washington. Over the years our paths would cross, and I could understand the challenges that Mark faced in his new department, given that I had so recently worked with many of his colleagues. I was truly impressed with his commitment to starting the subfield of race, ethnicity and politics in the department and ultimately UCLA’s African-American studies department. He brought in and mentored a significant number of graduate students, especially African-Americans and Latinos, creating a supportive environment that I hadn’t know many years before.

When I started graduate school in UCLA’s poli-sci department in 1993, there were very few black students, other than me and a couple of good friends, Vince Hutchings, now a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and Maria Niles, who ultimately became a marketing executive and consultant. Maria moved on from UCLA to get her master’s degree in political science at the University of Chicago, where she got to know Mark, and it’s likely that she was responsible for connecting us when we were still graduate students. (My memory of that time is a bit hazy.) We created a community of friends who supported one another through the program as we struggled, married and moved to new locations, and a few of us finished and got academic jobs. Vince went to Michigan in 1997, and, at that time, there was a dearth of black scholars in top poli-sci programs. I always knew I would be an anomaly as a black Europeanist, in any case. We didn’t really remark on it at the time; it was just the way things were.

We have all faced many stresses and challenges in our careers, whether as academics or other professions. As I have reflected on my experiences, I have wondered how much of my outward success reflects the unseen struggles I have faced as a black woman in a world that wasn’t made for me. In light of Mark’s challenges and his ultimate passing, is it helpful for those who have “made it” to talk about how we have dealt with anxiety, disappointment, department politics and the like? Not everyone is in a position to share these types of issues, and now that I am a provost, I don’t have to worry about department politics. Also, as my friend Josh Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, recently wrote in a blog post, “Ideas and understanding the way the world works and how it could be are a noble service. I’m no longer as sanguine that the arc of the moral universe moves in the ways that I want it to, but I’m not going to stop trying to make a contribution. That is the only way to live.” I have also heard from many younger scholars in our profession who feel that senior scholars must play a role in changing the game, as Raul Pacheco-Vega said in a tweet: “And while I know many of you, too, are reeling and grieving, I am putting this on you, tenured people: help us change the game from within.” Let this essay be a small contribution … although it is only a very small part of the story.

A quick look at my CV would indicate a very successful career. Books with Cambridge and Oxford University Presses, articles in the top comparative politics journals, edited volumes, and students who have gotten tenure-track jobs. In 2003, I helped start a Center for European Studies at UT Austin and became director in 2004. I worked with my department chair and the Center for African and African-American Studies to recruit new faculty, and for a short period of time, we had six black faculty members. I was able to help recruit one black student, Ernest McGowen, who is now a tenured professor at University of Richmond.

In 2006, my first year as an associate professor, I was named vice provost for undergraduate curriculum and international affairs. I stepped down from that position in 2009 with the blessing of my dean, department chair and the provost so that I could focus on getting promoted to full professor -- and they all pledged their support in that endeavor. I was given a year of sabbatical, which allowed me to focus on my research, but it was also the last year of my mother’s life and the year that my brother-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. In 2010, my mother passed away, my dean told me that I was losing my research support and couldn’t get it back without an outside offer, and the university began facing a series of budget cuts that would lead to no raises for those of us already in the higher salary ranges -- meaning six years of no raises for me.

It was at that point that I knew the research I was completing would be my last. As I was working to finish my book and other research with my students, I explored the possibility of staying in Austin but working in the community. I joined nonprofit boards, started my own organization and explored the business world, but I hit many cement ceilings in Austin. (My friend Ellen Sweets captures much of what I won’t miss about Austin here.)

The possibility for other faculty jobs was limited by a weak job market and a CV that made me a prime candidate for a quick move into an administrative position. I worked hard to complete my book so that I could be promoted to full professor (and I should note that I’m pretty sure I was the first black person to get tenure and become a full professor in the government department at UT) despite the skepticism of my departmental colleagues who wanted me to wait. (For what?) In the end, my only goal was to get promoted so I could get out.

Part of my desire to move on was the fact that I was tired of the hamster wheel of having to constantly work on that next book or article and never feeling like I had the time to develop long-term projects. I decided I might as well go back into admin, which offered leadership opportunities and the possibility of a raise for the first time in years. My husband didn’t really want to move, so I consulted with my former provost, dean and other mentors, and they all agreed that my best opportunities were going to be anywhere but Austin. It was telling to me that when I was promoted to vice provost in 2006, there were at least nine black women in leadership positions at UT Austin. When I left there was one.

Despite my accomplishments in the study of European politics, immigration and populism, I felt I had been pushed out of poli-sci and had few options outside of administration for furthering my career. However, I do not have any regrets, nor do I feel sorry for myself at all. I’m now living where I want to live, in a job that I love, and I’m present with my family. I don’t miss the rat race of research, or the departmental politics, where the work that I did often wasn’t valued.

I’m clearly an example of how a successful career can have many twists and turns. I certainly didn’t start out my academic career expecting to turn to administration, what many people call “the dark side.” However, it has put me in a position to be an advocate for an approach to academe that doesn’t shy away from tough issues like mental health or balancing career and family. In fact, I have a whole series of columns that have addressed such issues, and there will be more to come.

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Terri E. Givens is provost and dean of the arts and sciences at Menlo College.


Terri E. Givens

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